Science Fiction Is Used to Teach Societal Effects of Nano

 
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PostPosted: Fri Dec 09, 2005 11:00 am    Post subject: Science Fiction Is Used to Teach Societal Effects of Nano Reply with quote

Researchers Use Science Fiction Literature to Teach the Societal and Ethical Implications of Nanotechnology

In its efforts to fund nanotechnology research and development, the U.S. government, including the National Cancer Institute, has taken a proactive role in examining the societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology. One aspect of this effort is to develop course materials for introducing students to the idea of looking at any possible societal and ethical impacts that their nanotechnology research may have, but a problem facing universities is the fact that there are few commercialized uses of nanotechnology and thus few case studies that can be used to explore such “non-scientific” issues.

To overcome this lack of contemporary examples for use in nanotechnology ethics courses, Rosalyn Berne, Ph.D., of the University of Virginia, and Joachim Schummer, Ph.D., of the Technical University of Darmstadt, in Germany, have turned to science fiction classics that involve nanotechnology. Discussing their work in the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, the two scholars note that the use of literature for moral education is as old as formal education. In the case of nanotechnology, such literature must, almost by definition, come from the science fiction genre, given that science fiction authors have been most successful, so far, in exploring futures based on nanotechnology.

“Through science fiction, the imaginative process takes the mind beyond recognized material awareness and cognitive boundaries into domains of unexplainable sensory experience and psychological unknowing,” state the two researchers. “It can be used to reach beyond what is known and understood to make meaning of those elements of human awareness and perception that otherwise elude one’s grasp. It can also help break down conceptual barriers to awareness and, in turn, inspire imaginative consideration of what is right and good in futuristic technological development.”

In particular, the researchers note that science fiction can give engineering and science students a way to envision different societal outcomes from using nanotechnology, and thus provide a basis for discussion of the societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology research. As examples, the researchers cite two science fiction classics: the 1991 work The Nanotech Chronicles, by Michael Flynn, and Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel The Diamond Age. Both of these works excel at presenting differing ethical and societal views of nanotechnology’s role in future imagined societies, and provide a ready means of exploring these issues in the classroom.

This work is detailed in a paper titled, “Teaching societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology to engineering students through science fiction.” An abstract is available at the journal’s website.

Source: NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer.

URL: http://nano.cancer.gov/news_center/nanotech_news_2005-12-05d.asp

This story was posted on 8 December 2005.
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